Monday, June 6, 2016

Isaac Newton and the Divorce of Philosophy and Science

A recent Tamil book makes the case that Erwin Schrodinger was inspired by Vedanta in formulating his theories on quantum physics. The authors then proceeded to speciously argue for the continued relevance of Hindu Philosophy, knowledge systems, to today's world. In this backdrop it is pertinent to trace the point at which science roared forward unmoored from philosophical speculations and in the process creating its own paradigms. Isaac Newton marks the clear point at which science divorced itself from what was hitherto called philosophy.

Concluding the chapter on Aristotle Will Durant wrote "all the world awaited the resurrection of philosophy". Starting with Roger Bacon in the 13th century Europe saw a fervid efflorescence of genius. Tyco Brahe, Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Vesalius and Harvey took human knowledge into new frontiers. "It was an age of achievement, hope, and  vigor; of new beginnings and enterprises in every field; an age that waited for a voice". The voice was embodied in Francis Bacon.

Isaac Newton(Image Courtesy Wikipedia)
The explosion of knowledge that accompanied what Durant called "Age of Reason" was unprecedented in human history. Sir Thomas Bodley who established the Bodleian Library (1598) in Oxford "obtained from the Stationers Company a grant whereby the Bodleian Library that he had established at Oxford (1598) was to receive a copy of every book published in England". France and Germany saw similar libraries. Germany made elementary education compulsory for both sexes in 1565, rapidly other European cities followed. The Church which receives a justifiable rap for its confrontation with science nevertheless played a vital role in furthering the goal of education. "In France every parish had to maintain an elementary school". "In 1685 the Christian Brothers opened what was probably the first modern institutions for the training of elementary school teachers". Nearly two hundred universities were opened between 1550s to late 17th century.

Isaac Newton, born on Dec 25th 1642 in Woolsthorpe, entered a world where slowly but surely science, thanks to Francis Bacon, was stepping out of the shadows of philosophy. Bacon, James Gleick's biography of Newton says, lamented "all the philosophy of nature which is now recieved, is either the philosophy of the Grecians, or that other of the alchemists...The one is gathered out of a few vulgar observations, and the other out of a few experiments of a furnace. The one never faileth to multiply words, and other ever faith to multiply gold". Bacon, Gleick points out, "argued for experiment".  When the Royal Society was established in 1660 with the motto 'Nullius in verba" Bacon was adopted as the patron saint. The age of telescope and microscope had arrived. "It (the Royal Society) exalted communication and condemned secrecy".

Robert Hooke who served as the Curator of Experiments in the Royal Society wrote in his "Microphagia", tat science should now "return to the plainness and soundness of Observations" and away from what it was hitherto, a "work of the Brain and Fancy".

A society for science dedicated to communicate faced the question of which language to use. Though Latin was the obvious choice the members felt "it was time for plain speaking, the most naked of expression, and when possible this meant the language of mathematics". The Royal Society was not alone, soon Europe saw a host of societies established where, most importantly, men of science congregated and debated without the constraints of social status. Gleick quotes an entry from Samuel Pepys's diary on how the Society organized science exhibitions for Londoners. This was a quantum leap. Let's return to Newton's story.

Thanks to Stokes, the schoolmaster at Grantham where Newton attended school, and his uncle, a rector, Isaac Newton was sent to Trinity college at the University of Cambridge for further studies. A civil war, plague, a rebellion and a regicide (if hanging Cromwell's corpse could be called so) formed the climate in which Newton attended college. Newton read avidly, particularly Aristotle. Aristotle idea of "motion" was elastic enough to consider a "piece of bronze becoming a statue" as motion. That meant, Gleick says, "philosophers were not ready to make fine distinctions between velocity and acceleration". Aristotle had famously said "Plato is my friend, but truth my greater friend". Newton added Aristotle to that and wrote in his notebook "Plato amicus Aristoteles magic amica veritas".

Descartes had earlier married algebra to geometry yielding a new discipline. "He treated one unknown as a spatial dimension, a line; two unknowns thus define a plane....Equations generated curves; curves embodied equations". To that Newton added the question of motion which embraced the infinite and the infinitesimal together. "To measure curvature was to find rate of change".

In 1665, soon afterNewton graduated, Cambridge was closed due to plague ravaging England. Back in Woolsthorpe Newton worked alone and laid the foundations of calculus, theories on gravitation and light. Newton returned to Cambridge in 1667 and was elected a fellow. He took the oath to "embrace the true religion of Christ with all my soul". "Chastity was expected. Marriage was forbidden". In 1669, at the age of 27, Isaac Newton became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. The mathematician's heart was in physics though.

Newton's paper on the nature of white light was read in the Royal Society in 1672. Newton, Gleick says, "declared triumphantly-"that light consists of Rays different refrangible". Hooke objected to Newton's theory that proposed light was "corpuscular" in nature, particles. Newton responded that "that followed from his theory and not the other way round". Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens also joined the debate on the "wave theory" side. Newton felt insulted and wanted to withdraw from the Royal Society. "He had tried to show how science is grounded in concrete practice rather than grand theories". As these debates raged Newton, in 1675, reached another milestone. In the seventh year of his fellowship Newton was required to take the "holy orders and be ordained to the Anglican clergy". Gaelic notes "England's universities were above all else instruments of Christianity". Newton was spared the ordeal by the King who exempted the "Lucasian professorship, in perpetuity, from the obligation".

Hooke and Newton would clash again when the "Principia Mathematica" was published. Both Hooke and Newton had rejected the Cartesian idea of "vortices" to explain planetary motion. Both were circling around the ideas that "a body orbiting another in an inverse-square gravitational field" would trace an elliptical curve. Conversely, they also realized that a gravitational force law to describe a body tracing an elliptical curve around another body can only be a "inverse-square law". Hooke did not have mathematical proof but Newton did. Edmund Halley and Flamsteed who were calculating data about meteors supplied Newton with theories and data. Newton, Gleick shows in scintillating pages, went where no philosopher or philosophy went. Book III, The System of the World, "gathered together the phenomena of the cosmos. It did this flaunting an exactitude unlike anything in the history of philosophy". Gone are the flights of fancy of a philosopher or dreary sophistries of reasoning and in its place science arrived with exactitude. Hooke wanted credit for the inverse square law, which in reality was nothing more than a guess until Newton supplied the mathematical proof. Newton was irked and he called philosophy a "litigious lady that a man had as good be engaged in law suits". Halley published the Principia out of his funds.

Newton was charged with promoting atheism, a dangerous charge in that era.Will Durant writes "he appended to the second edition a general scholium on the role of God in his system". Though Newton kept up the appearances of a devout Christian in private he was anything but. Gleick says he preferred writing "AC (after Christ) instead of AD". Newton questioned the idea of trinity, a heretical and dangerous sacrilege then. To Newton Christ was less than God the Father. Though celibate Newton confessed to not only sexual thought but charged his friend Locke of having tried to entice him with women.

Hooke died in 1703 and Newton ascended to the power at the Royal Society. In 1704 Newton published his next major work "Opticks" which revolutionized the understanding light. Along with Opticks Newton published  a paper "On the Quadrature of Curves" that laid down the fundamentals of Calculus.  German mathematician Leibniz who had corresponded with Newton on what he called "fluxions" claimed that he too was the inventor of this new mathematics. As president of Royal Society Newton was judge, jury and prosecutor. Newton literally forged documents in his favor. History has now declared both Leibniz and Newton as co-inventors of Calculus.

What did Newton, specifically the Principia, achieve? James Gleick is categorical, "Newton had made claims that could be tested". In 1733 the French Academy of Scoences proved Newton was correct that the earth was "broader at the equator". Gleick is emphatic, "The Principia marked a fork in the road: thenceforth science and philosophy went separate ways". "By mathematizing science science, he made it possible for its facts and claims to be proved wrong". Conceding that Einstein's Relativity shook the world of Newtonian determinism Gleick cites Thomas Kuhn who suggested that "Einstein had turned science to problems and beliefs". However, Gleick cautions, "Einstein did shake space-time loose from pins to which Newton had bound it, but he lived in Newton's space-time nonetheless: absolute in its geometrical rigor", "he happily brandished the tools Newton had forged".

Isaac Newton was celebrated in prose by Alexander Pope and Wordsworth, William Blake drew a portrait of him, Voltaire studied him and literally proselytized for him in France, he was knighted and when he died nobles were his pall bearers and he was interred in the Westminster Abbey.

Portrait of Newton by William Blake (Image courtesy Wikipedia)

"Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in the night
God said, "Let Newton be!", and all was light" --- Alexander Pope

"Newton with his prism and silent face
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone" --- William Wordsworth

Science has decisively outpaced philosophy and America, the land of pragmatism, which became the leader of science, had little use for European style sophistry. No one embodied the American spirit of science better than Richard Feynman. In Feynman was a spirit of irreverence and absence of philosophy unlike Einstein who read Kant as a child. Philosophy does not even provide the questions anymore let alone answers. Schrodinger owed to illicit sex as much as he owed to Vedanta for inspiring his theories.

The questions that the authors of the Tamil book failed to ask where: Why is it that it took an Austrian scientist to find the ideas in Vedanta that could inspire a scientist and not any Indian scientist? What in the Austrian scientist's Viennese education enabled him to see in Vedanta what no Indian scientist did? How many Indian exponents of Indian philosophy arrive at the same conclusions? Above all what paradigms of the Vedic era are relevant for science today? I'll write a detailed review and rebuttal of the book later.

The traffic of knowledge across the European continent is staggering in scope and requires a meditated appreciation for the scope at which it occurred. Ideas, amidst turmoils of wars, flowed in all directions. Ideas from Frances, Netherlands, Germany and England all collided and created a new world. That books written in France, Germany and England were translated, shipped to other countries and debated in scientific circles providing a magnificent intellectual stirring is a fact that should astound us, those who live in this modern social media age, on a grand scale. What is even more important is how they were eager to learn from others and not mired in petty nationalist chauvinisms. That too, given the kind of era it was, passes comprehension.

This was to be a book review of James Gleick's "Isaac Newton" but morphed into a different tone. Gleick's book is very mediocre. The narrative is uneven and his extensive quotes in the English of that era are irritating to read. What is really a letdown is Gleick's inability to explain science in a more lucid manner. This is shocking considering that Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman, "Genius", was critically acclaimed both for the sensitive portrayal of Feynman and for the lucidity of explaining esoteric concepts like Quantum Dynamics. I read portions of Will Durant's magisterial 11 volume "Story of civilization", specifically, volumes "The age of Reason" and "The age of Louis XIV" after I finished Gleick's book. Durant, who wrote nearly 40 years ago and was no scientist, covered all the material that Gleick, writing in 2003, covers. Durant's explanations of the theories and their significances are spot on. And, as only Durant can do, he provides a panoramic perspective of that era. Gleick's book should be read only because Durant's 11 volume series is out of print.

Science has marched forth from the shadows of philosophy and education has been liberated from the clutches of Church and State paving the way for what we call today 'secular education'. Both of those achievements are now under siege from the Hindutva camp.


  1. Isaac Newton - James Gleick
  2. The Age of Reason -- Will and Ariel Durant
  3. The Age of Louis XIV -- Will and Ariel Durant
  4. Isaac Newton
  5. The Royal Society
  6. Francis Bacon
  7. New York Times Book Review of "Schrodinger: Life and Thought" by Walter Moore -- This addresses briefly the role of Vedanta in Schrodinger's life -

1 comment:

Cox Dravid said...

Whenever West boasts of its Sciences like Darwinian Evolution or Uncertainty Principle The East will boasts of its Great Epics Ramayana and Maha Bharatha!
In the former Epic an unevolved beast (Giant Ravana) the King of Rakshsaas with Monkey Apes hindering the evolution of Man was conquered and slayed by Rama thereby furthering the evolution of Man unto Devas!In Nietzschean terms 'Man is not an end but Man is a bridge between Animal and Super Man'!
In the other case with the Uncertainty principle one has to encounter The Great Dice Gambler Shakuni in Mahabharatha than the original Physicist Werner Heisenberg in order to understand the whole Philosophy and Science of uncertainty of Life as Pandavas struggled to be selected as the fittest clan in the Natural selection of Life !